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Power on Trial: Opening statements in Spota, McPartland case

Former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, left, and

Former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota, left, and his former top aide Christopher McPartland. Credit: James Carbone

Pointing fingers

Assistant U.S. Attorney Justina Geraci, the first one up for opening statements in the trial of Thomas Spota, Suffolk's former district attorney, and Christopher McPartland, former head of the DA's anti-corruption unit, was hardly up and talking when she walked over — and I mean right on over — to the defendants' table so jurors would know who she was talking about. 

"Ladies and gentlemen," she said, walking.

"This is a case about two corrupt lawyers: these men, the defendants …"

By now, she was across the room, finger raised.

"Christopher McPartland," she said, stabbing said pointer at McPartland.

"And Thomas Spota," she went on, turning the finger and aiming — incredibly close — to the reddening face of Spota.

"They abused the power, the authority, the influence and the positions of trust they held as the top prosecutors in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, all to protect their close friend — a crooked cop who beat a prisoner," she went on, while walking back toward the jury of eight women and four men.

"Why? Because they could. Because they thought they were above the law. But they were wrong. And we are here today because no one is above the law."

McPartland appeared to remain impassive as Geraci continued; Spota, at one point, puffed up his cheeks and slowly exhaled.

Not-so-musical chairs

Early on, a marshal cleared space on the front row, behind the prosecution, so members of Geraci's family could watch her spirited opening.

Also watching from around the courtroom were others from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District, including Assistant U.S. Attorney Catherine Mirabile, one of the prosecutors on the corruption-related case of Edward Mangano, Nassau's former county executive who, with his wife, Linda, is awaiting sentencing.

Richard P. Donoghue, who heads the office, was on hand as well.

He came into the crowded courtroom shortly after U.S. District Court Judge Joan Azrack swore in the jury panel, and had to lean against the wall near the door because all the seats were filled.

At one point, a marshal appeared with a chair for Donoghue, who had passed on an offer from a colleague, paralegal Sherinta Moore-Glasgow, for a front-row spot behind the prosecution table.

The new chair, however, was placed in the front row behind the defendants and their attorneys where Spota supporters — including Eric Naiburg, an attorney who worked with Spota when both were prosecutors and argued against him as a defense attorney — were sitting.

Donoghue moved the chair one row back, where he sat, legs crossed, laced fingers on knees, listening to Geraci's opening.

The Defenders, Part I

Larry Krantz, McPartland's lead attorney, was even quicker than the prosecution — but this time in jumping in fast to defend his client.

"Hallucinations," Krantz began.

Stop.

"Delusions."

Stop.

"Paranoia."

Stop.

And from there, Krantz's feisty opening continued, centering on James Hickey, a former head of the Suffolk police department's criminal intelligence unit.

Hickey, who has a deal with prosecutors and who is expected to be the government's star witness, is to Spota and McPartland, it seems, what former restaurateur Harendra Singh was to his former close friends Edward and Linda Mangano.

And just as with Singh, defense attorneys for McPartland and, later in the morning, Spota slammed away at Hickey's credibility.

"I am about to tell you something that is astonishing," Krantz told jurors.

The prosecution, he went on, "has built its case on a corroded foundation," noting that Hickey was hospitalized for alcoholism in 2013 and again in 2015 while suffering from hallucinations and the other aforementioned conditions.

"Can you rely on his memory and accuracy?" Krantz asked.

Krantz spoke almost twice as long as the prosecution.

But he also had unforeseen breaks in his presentation.

Once, when the microphone fell off his tie.

And again when Azrack ordered a break, after a juror signaled the need to use the bathroom.

The Defenders, Part II

Late morning, Alan Vinegrad, Spota's lead attorney, took his spot at the lectern.

But first, he had to recover the mic from Krantz, who was on his way back to the defendants' table.

Mic secured, Vinegrad, too, got right to the point.

"Tom Spota is innocent," he said, in a volume far louder than the softest one Krantz had taken on at the end of his presentation.

"What happened in this case is that James Burke lost his temper with a burglar who broke into his car, and he assaulted the burglar and then he lied about it for three years to Tom Spota and anyone else who would listen," Vinegrad said.

From there, he went right to the government's allegation that Spota obstructed justice.

"That accusation," he said, "is a baseless and damnable lie."

At that, Spota sat, chin lifted high for the first time all morning, with his wife looking on from the spectator seats.

One court observer, in spotting Spota, whispered, "He's in the lucky chair."

It's the seat that was occupied by John Venditto, who was charged, along with Mangano — and whose trial was held before the same judge, in the same courtroom and with one of the same prosecutors.

Venditto was acquitted when jurors delivered a partial verdict in that trial.

Vinegrad, as did Krantz, took swipes at Hickey, too. And he went further, swiping in advance at the prosecution's intention to introduce cell, home and business phone records into evidence.

"The government," Vinegrad said, "is going to scrape the bottom of the evidence barrel."

In the bag

In addition to phone records and anticipated testimony from Hickey, Geraci, during her opening, also told jurors that they would see photographs of some contents of the duffel bag that was stolen from James Burke's county-issued SUV by Christopher Loeb, who later won a settlement from Suffolk County for a beating he suffered from Burke and others after his arrest for burglary.

The bag, she said, "included out-of-the-ordinary items, like sex toys, prescription Viagra with his name on the bottle and pornography."

"You’ll also see photographs of some — but certainly not all — of the interesting items that Loeb stole from Burke," she said later.

"Why not everything? Well, because Burke grabbed the most embarrassing evidence before it could be photographed."

It's a small world

First up for the prosecution was John Gallagher, who served as Suffolk's police commissioner under former County Executive Robert Gaffney. Gallagher, who has had some health issues, was in a wheelchair. The former commissioner was accompanied by James O’Rourke, a Port Jefferson attorney and Spota's former law partner, who made sure Gallagher was settled near the witness box before turning to join spectators in seats behind the prosecution table.

O'Rourke last year set up a defense fund to help McPartland.

Others in the courtroom included Steve Politi, the attorney for Thomas Murphy, who is on trial in Riverhead in the death of a Boy Scout, and Weldon Drayton Jr., who in May saw arson charges against him dismissed.

Drayton, in an interview, said he still was on suspension from Suffolk's police department because of his arrest in that case. "I am here to see how the department works," he said.

Drayton got some of that with the prosecution's second witness, Stuart Cameron, Suffolk's current chief of department, who testified in detail about some department operations now and as they were under the command of Burke, Cameron's predecessor.

Loeb — the "burglar" described by Vinegrad — showed up at the courthouse for the afternoon session of testimony — his third appearance there since jury selection.

He told Newsday on Thursday that he had been told by authorities that he could not stay in the courtroom because he could be a potential witness.

"I was told not to enter the courtroom," he later told reporters.

Questions about the trial? Send them to Joye Brown.

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